As you will have guessed from the title of this article on our favourite Community Care website, we are promised a piece about looking into the reasons why families and individuals are aggressive towards social workers. What we get is something very different. It is, instead and rather ironically, a hostile defense of social workers and a complete denial of any responsibility in situations where aggression manifests itself in social care scenarios. It’s like reading an emotionally under-developed adult’s back-chat. And it has no place in serious social work.

What ensues is a rather myopic and at times painfully ignorant analysis by Dr Siobhan Laird from the Centre for Social Work at Nottingham University, of what is actually going on, on the ground. Dr Laird’s lack of perception about the human condition too is apparent, and makes for concerning reading – time and again, people who are entrusted with teaching the next generation how to care for the vulnerable, seem to have too limited an understanding of just why and how humans react the way they do. A basic requirement, we feel, in this line of work.

The first moment we realised this article was going to be disappointing, was, in fact, upon reading the first paragraph, which says:

” An analysis of serious case reviews reveals that some parents and their partners engage in a wide range of intimidating behaviours, including making a formal complaint against the social worker, accusing the practitioner of being racist or homophobic, alleging that they are being victimised, inviting supporters hostile to children’s services to attend meetings and expressing disproportionate anger towards social workers over minor matters.”

Since when did making a complaint about a social worker amount to intimidation? It is well within every parent’s right to complain if they feel they have not been treated respectfully and ‘with care’.  And if the complaint is unfounded, surely social workers can move on and accept that this must be a reaction to the fear, sometimes, of losing one’s child. In our experience, having assisted hundreds of families at this stage, unwarranted complaints are few and far between, and if a family does complain about their treatment at the hands of social workers, they are often penalised, at best through ritual humiliation and dishonest reporting of events, and at worst, threatened with full care orders – not because the child has been deemed at that stage to be in need of such an order: purely, out of spite.

And so Dr Laird’s reaction to what appears to be an analysis done presumably at the university of Nottingham on the topic of aggression in social work (or perhaps it was the survey on the Community Care website, a rather basic tool for analysis in itself), is rather telling. Riddled with the defensive culture now so much a part of social work, which is wholly understandable given failings involving children like Baby Peter and Victoria Climbié to name just two, Dr Laird clearly has a one-dimensional view of what is going on and why. Bearing that in mind, such a defensive outlook is bound to skew the reality of what is really happening.

Families who accuse social workers of being racist or homophobic, of victimising them and inviting people to come to meetings to support the families by and large do so with a view to protecting themselves, precisely because the culture of self-preservation and defensiveness amongst social workers is now completely out of control. It is never appropriate for professionals to blame vulnerable parents, or children for that matter, when they react under pressure, and to then penalise them, which is not in their remit, instead of focusing on what’s best for the children, regardless of what parents do, short of physical violence. That is tantamount to a doctor performing an operation on a patient and suggesting, when the operation goes wrong, that the patient was somehow to blame. And then suing the patient.

We simply cannot have that kind of stupidity inside the system; it causes all kinds of irregularities. One such anomaly can be seen in McKenzie Friend support: we will always advise families not to make any kind of formal complaint about their social workers during the life of their case, because we know from professional experience that to do so means they will, most of the time, simply lose their children without any real adjudication of the facts which might merit such action. That is the other side of the coin, the side Dr Laird either does not acknowledge, or, as a full-time academic, simply has no experience of.

And whilst aggression towards social workers is not always justified, it must be understood and managed, for the sake of the social workers, as well as the families. Dr Laird seems to agree on this point, but it appears to be with a view to protecting the social worker, rather than understanding the source and supporting families, too.

Much of the so-called analysis the article mentions seems rather vague. Dr Laird tells us that, “Typically, social workers are led to believe that the expression of hostility or aggression by parents or their partners is attributable to their own mishandling of an interaction.” We would be very interested to know how Dr Laird quantifies ‘typically’. Was there a statistic involved? Did she ask several local authorities on their practice in this area? We would wager not, and it is exactly this kind of sloppy analysis that breeds stigma and mistrust amongst a sector which should be working towards showing the system that it can play a very important part in child protection. We have not, in the time we have been assisting parents, ever come across a social worker who expressed this view.

Social workers do not deal in the removal of furniture. They are trained to protect children and remove them from harm. Most parents, regardless of their capacity to care for their children, love their children very much. Any care order removing a child is bound to cause huge distress. Dr Laird’s seemingly numb attitude to this fact is no small part of a much larger problem when it comes to working out how to support families in this dilemma.

Do have a read of the article in full over tea and a digestive if you have time. There’s lots up for discussion.